Brian lifts a pint of beer from the table with both hands and slowly pulls it to his mouth as though it were a super-sized sippy cup. Convulsing from relentless bouts of giggling, giddiness and grinning, he has to forcefully lasso his lips into the requisite “O” shape just to manage a swallow.
He repeats this awkward, nervous action again and again.
Sip. Swallow. Giggle. Grin. Sip. Swallow. Giggle. Grin. When finally he does manage to speak, what comes billowing across the table of our tiny booth at the Virginia Café is a contrail of heart-shaped platitudes. “She’s got these sparkly eyes, a cute little laugh,” he gushes, eyes blinking off somewhere into space. “I totally have a crush on her.”
Tall and meaty, with soft features and longish brown hair, Brian (he asked that we not use his last name) has a date tonight. But the “she” he is drooling over is most definitely not his wife. Nope. While the 38-year-old computer data analyst is here trying to calm his pre-date nerves with alcohol, his wife, April, is back at their East Side home whipping him up a couple of vegetarian herbed cutlets. These Brian will eat later, with his date, down in the basement, while April stays upstairs. And after Brian and his date are done eating, they’ll settle in for a little one-on-one.
My puritanical mind—which was raised on the Good Book back in Arkansas—hurls mental stones across the table: Cheater. Adulterer. Pervert. But apparently that’s just me being a narrow-minded monogamist. Because for April and Brian, sleeping with somebody else isn’t lying. It’s a lifestyle—specifically, polyamory, a word that derives from the Greek word poly, meaning “many,” and amor, the Latin word for love. Last fall, even as they took their vows in front of friends and family, Brian and April knew (though most of their guests didn’t) the unique rules of their arrangement. Both would be allowed to pursue romantic or sexual relationships with multiple people simultaneously, as long as they had permission from one another and were honest about their intentions, and as long as neither objected to the other’s chosen partner… till death do us part.
Some might call them weird. Others might call them amoral. Just please—don’t call them “swingers.” For unlike those who stray from the marriage bed purely for sex, polys (as polyamorists are known for short) profess to be a higher-minded lot, in hot pursuit not just of orgasm but of intimacy. What they want are multiple respectful, nurturing, long-term relationships—a kind of Dr. Phil-inspired emotional approach to love that in recent years has helped move polyamory away from the edges of the sexual fringe and attracted more people to its ranks. After all, who wouldn’t want more love, more sex and more meaningful connections with like-minded adults?
Today the number of polyamorists is high enough (at least half a million, according to one informal study conducted in 2002 by Adam Weber for the glossy polyamory magazine called Loving More) that it can support a number of annual conferences, like Poly Big Fun ’08, which takes place this month outside of Austin, Texas. Even Merriam-Webster’s editors recognize the movement’s critical mass—they added the word to the dictionary’s 11th edition (including its adjective form, “polyamorous”) in 2006.
But few places boast a poly community as robust in numbers and enthusiasm as does Portland, which is home to a thriving and complex social network of polys who are eager to meet up with other polys—Brian estimates about 1,500 alone are signed up for the local Yahoo poly chat rooms he moderates alone. Lean into a conversation at your local Anna Bannanas coffee shop and you might find yourself eavesdropping on one of the monthly polyamory discussion groups, get-togethers where couples (and their lovers) problem-solve and vent about quandaries like “What do you do if he’s more into his new girlfriend than he is into you?” Local websites like Lovetribe.org act as a sort of cyber meet-up and information-sharing hub. And nearly every week there are parties that allow newbies and multipartner veterans alike to keep in touch. Literally.
This expanding social milieu has been great for Brian, although he still admits to being a somewhat closeted poly—in fact, he refrains from using the words “wife” and “girlfriend” in the same sentence at his Beaverton workplace. Nevertheless, he doesn’t regret his choice to join the scene. “I’m a touchy-feely kind of guy,” Brian explains. “Through polyamory, I’ve found a way to get my physical and emotional needs met.”
Which might be why he still can’t wipe that smile off his face. As soon as he manages to down his last swig of beer, he’s headed back home for one final bit of pre-date discussion with his wife so that they both understand what will occur: Will tonight just be dinner and a movie? Will there be snuggling? Kissing? The whole nine yards?
After the cutlets are prepared, the doorbell will ring. While April is doing the dishes, Brian and his date will slip downstairs to the basement with their dinner, slide a DVD of Rent into the player and let the evening unfold. After their bodies have untangled—and if they’re really lucky—April might even bring them a snack (perhaps that Jell-O dessert in the fridge from a few days earlier). Because this is how it’s supposed to work. Respect. Openness. Orgasm. It’s the polyamorous ideal, and tonight Brian and April are living the dream.
“Let me tell you,” he says, a glint in his eye as he slips on his raincoat, “there’s nothing sexier than having your wife bring you food when you’re in bed with another woman.”
From Oneida to the Oscars
In my mind, there is a desert. And in that desert, meandering through the saguaro cactus and arid rubble, a greasy-looking middle-management type named Glen has just offered up his wife, Dot, to an ex-con named H.I. In return, Glen would like to know H.I.’s wife. Biblically.
H.I.: What are you talkin’ about, Glen?
Glen: I’m talkin’ about sex, boy. What the hell’re you talkin’ about? You know, l’amour? I’m talkin’ me’n Dot are swingers. As in “to swing.” Wife swappin’. What they call nowadays “open marriage”!
At which point, H.I. delivers a crushing uppercut to Glen’s jaw.
This scene from Raising Arizona is lodged in my brain. It’s the icky filter through which all of my thoughts about swinging are siphoned: slithery characters in flower-print shirts and gold chains, with hairy chests and a collection of Barry White albums. You know, l’amour?
Truth is, during the late 1960s and ’70s that cliché fit swingers like a pair of pleather bell-bottoms. Back then, when sexual mores were being broken with abandon, wife-swapping and key parties made such a splash in the mainstream that in 1969 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a movie about swingers, was nominated for four Academy Awards. Such silver screen normalization was a boon to promiscuity, so much so that by 1983 the North American Swing Club Association had formed, eventually spawning outlets in 42 states. These were erotic times in the randy-go-lucky U.S. of A., and monogamy seemed headed the way of the maypole.
Then the other shoe dropped: STDs. AIDS. Freewheeling sex was forced underground. But with relatively little fanfare, another offshoot of swinging, one based on ideals of polyfidelity (a kind of group marriage), was slowly gaining acceptance. This particular model of open marriage can be traced all the way back to the mid-1800s, when the Oneida Community in New York committed itself to a sort of communal love—one in which every man was, in essence, informally married to every woman. (To varying degrees, the communes and “intentional communities” that sprang up in the 1970s often embraced a similar philosophy.) But as far as anyone can figure, it wasn’t until 1990 that someone put a name to this web of relationships. That was when the pagan-inspired Green Egg magazine, published by an organization called the Church of All Worlds, printed an article titled “A Bouquet of Lovers.” In it, writer Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart (yep, you guessed it, a self-described “neo-pagan poet”), explained how and why she and her partner, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, decided to take many sexual partners. She defined the principles of their particular arrangement (openness, honesty) and dubbed the practice “polyamory.”
Today, while poly couples might never replace the Ward and June Cleaver modus operandi, they’ve certainly made inroads into the mainstream. Take, for instance, the red carpet. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) divides her time between the father of her two children, John Byrne, and 29-year-old German-born artist Sandro Kopp. (It was Kopp who sat with her at this year’s awards ceremony.) Even more surprising, perhaps, is the agreement between Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. “If it came down to it, then one can say to the other, ‘Look, I need to have sex with somebody [else],’” Smith told Britain’s Daily Mail in 2005. “Our marriage vows didn’t say ‘forsaking all others.’ The vow that we made was that you will never hear that I did something after the fact.” When someone as wholesome as the Fresh Prince embraces a heretofore far-out lifestyle, you know it’s reached the tipping point.
Let’s Get it On(line)
As it has with most things once regarded as taboo, the Internet has acted like a dinner bell for anyone with even a passing interest in polyamory. Locally, the hottest address for the poly-curious is Lovetribe.org. Launched in 2002 by a Portland-based couple’s counselor who goes by the screen name Jas, the site purports “to give people space and permission to be playful and alive.”
Who are these people who thumb their noses at convention, with their threesomes and spouse-swapping, while silly, one-woman-lovin’ me putters along with a girlfriend I’d be a dumbass to want to share? The gall. But still, I couldn’t shake my curiosity. So I closed my eyes, swallowed hard and joined the Tribe.
It’s pretty simple: Log in, choose a nickname (I am SouthernMan1) and wait for an e-mail verification. Click. Just like that, an entire underworld materialized beneath my fingers. I could search for potential partners by age, sex or location, or find a litany of poly-themed events, described with saucy adjectives. Snuggly. Tantric. Erotic. Edgy.
I could also access a social calendar that sounded like something out of Penthouse Forum. There’s a “Men’s Spirit Pajama Party” on Thursday, in which I could engage in massage circles and something called a “puppy pile.” A clothing-optional hot-tub party/baby shower on Friday. Or the “Rapture” on Saturday, a sexually charged dance party that promised to end in one of two ways—in the Snuggle Den, a room that’s meant for clothes-on touching, or in the Play Space, where sex was A-OK. There, the only rule, other than safe sex, was that you couldn’t expose your genitals on the dance floor—at least, not until midnight.
For this all-American monogamist, every option seemed absolutely horrifying. Strangers touching strangers? Strangers touching me? I nearly blacked out thinking about all the Purell this excursion would require. And then I saw something more my speed: the First Thursday Art Snuggle. The description promised a fully clothed group groping amid poetry readings and lightly strummed music. More important, there would also be liquor. And cookies.
In Old Town, near the corner of NW Everett and 6th, my girlfriend and I find a door propped open. She’s come to the art snuggle with me for support, of course, but also for the masochistic glee she gets from watching me squirm in uncomfortable situations. A sandwich board out front painted with two of Dr. Suess’s star-bellied Sneetches poking each other in the stomach advertises something called “Sensation: A Touching Show.” This is the place.
In the private loft building, we weave past exquisitely disheveled hipsters and purple-haired teenagers sipping from plastic cups of wine. We end up in a long room lined with etchings, drawings and finger paintings. Twenty people mill around, perusing the art on the walls and fiddling with colorful wads of Play-Doh laid out on a center table. Near the bank of windows in the back, a woman reads aloud a poem about her menstrual cycle. Or maybe it’s a miscarriage?
Whatever. We’re here to witness the puppy pile, a cooing mass of arms and legs also known as “the snuggle.” And upstairs in a tiny 8-by-8 loft area covered in blankets and pillows, we find it: six people dressed in their pajamas, cuddling, caressing, stroking, massaging. They’re nearly lying on top of each other, faces relaxed in some state of silent bliss.
The puppy pile is just one of many gateway drugs that feed a polyamorist’s need for nonsexual connection (although not all attendees necessarily call themselves polyamorists). There’s also “ecstatic dance,” where participants purge the kinetic funk from their minds by flailing and screaming to the rhythm of a tribal beat; and “pujas,” in which attendees circle up and continually switch partners in short, intense, touch-free bouts of “soul gazing.” It’s like speed dating without the emphasis on flesh-based attraction or even the requisite “Hi, my name is _____.”
“You see a lot of relationships start in snuggles and pujas,” says Julie Avena, an Ashland-based intimacy and love coach. “It’s more intimate than a one-night stand. That mousy person you might not have noticed at first? You open up your heart to her and you realize that she could be your soul mate.” As long as your current soul mate (yeah, that girl in the corner with the ring on her finger) doesn’t mind, of course. Because within the chest of most polys beats a heart that’s longing for connection, says Avena. Deep connection. Something that goes beyond looks.
The brains-over-beauty ethos sounds like a great idea. I want to believe it. So my girlfriend and I push ourselves to the edge of the stairs and gaze into the eye of the puppy pile. Should we dive in? Get a taste of that love buzz that so many polys rave about? An older woman with short gray hair notices our gawking. In excruciating slow-motion she releases one hand from someone else’s neck, untangling herself just enough to extend a come-hither arm to us. The question printed on her oversized sleep-shirt does all the talking: “Wanna Snuggle?”
Rather uncomfortably, I reply. No ma’am. I do not. That’s what my dogs are for. With a gaggle of bedroom eyes following us out the door, we slink away. But why do I feel so guilty for not being able to open myself up?
Monogamy is for suckers. This thought actually crosses your mind once you spend a few weeks talking to polys about the bliss of a crowded bed. I mean, what’s not titillating about polyamory? There’s the sex with multiple partners. The potential for sex with multiple partners at the same time. And, of course, the ability to express your wants, needs and desires to all of your partners, including the one you’re married to, without risking a sharp knee to the groin.
But orchestrating all these unleashed desires between wife and husband and their various boyfriends and girlfriends requires a great deal of juggling. Think it’s bad when one girlfriend feels neglected? Try having four, which Brian did at one point. They call polyamory a lifestyle. But to some polyamorists it starts to look like a job.
“Members of the poly community prefer to view themselves as being different from those just looking to get laid,” says Theresa Reed, a 45-year-old Portland-based writer. She would know. Back in 2001, Reed was instrumental in galvanizing the local poly scene by facilitating low-key, nonsexual get-togethers, usually in her own home.
“Polyamorists are always processing things. Thinking about things. For days. Sometimes it seems like nobody has time to have sex,” she says. “There’s this joke: Swinging is sex without the guilt—polyamory is guilt without the sex.”
That explains why monthly polyamory discussion groups—which Brian now leads in his own home—can become a necessary outlet. Because even when all parties are willing, having a threesome simply isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are issues. Lots of them: time management, balancing the needs of a primary relationship with a secondary one, jealousy, how to bring up being poly in a conversation with the uninitiated, and even pondering how “out” one should be.
Still, despite all the processing and the bullet points, for most monogamists, polyamory may always be looked upon as somewhat depraved, a dolled-up whore sitting in the front church pew.
I know this because I feel the drill bits buzzing from my girlfriend’s eyes whenever I bring up the topic. For the purposes of my story, I’m just thinking out loud, rattling off the talking points in defense of polyamory—playing devil’s advocate. But each time I make a point, she shoots me down with a simple observation: Why get married if you know you’re going to want to sleep with other people?
It’s the one argument that poly apologists can’t shake. Not that they don’t try. “A lot of people end good relationships by going after a crush,” Reed says. “Something that’s forbidden is more attractive, but when you cheat you create all these horrible things. Divorce. Mistrust. Hatred. In a polyamorous relationship, if you have a crush, you say to your partner, ‘Let’s learn more about this person.’”
As Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt succinctly put it in The Ethical Slut, considered by many to be the bible of polyamory: “A ring around the finger does not cause a nerve block to the genitals.”
Of course, for polyamory to work, both parties have to be on the same sexual page. By the end of Brian’s first marriage, he says, his connection with his wife had basically dried up. At one point he was so desperate for intimacy that he considered paying a prostitute—just to be held. When he finally worked up the courage to talk to his wife of seven years about opening up their relationship, it ended in divorce. That’s when he started frequenting snuggles; he met April at one in 2006.
“We have a very strong commitment to each other,” April explains. “We’re partners, we are friends, and what we offer each other goes beyond sex and new bedmates. In fact, sex is probably one of the more minor areas in our relationship.” The arrangement, she says, also allows Brian to explore some of his more far-flung fantasies—like bondage, an act which April says makes her feel claustrophobic. “So I just let him go explore,” April says matter-of-factly.
“It works,” Brian says, “flawlessly.” It also provides him an unending supply of the magical elixir polys call NRE—New Relationship Energy. The kind of butterflies-in-the-belly, waiting-by-the-phone, oh-my-God-I’m-holding-her-hand tingling that most of us haven’t felt since, well, we got married or moved in with our partner five years ago.
But with that rush also comes a potential killer: jealousy, which Brian and April attempt to tame partly by talking about flare-ups and partly by keeping themselves preoccupied. When April had a recent rendezvous with another couple, Brian, conveniently, had already scheduled a flight to Missouri to visit his daughter. On Brian’s most recent date, April busied herself with a term paper (she’s a religious studies major at Marylhurst University) and stayed up on the third floor of their home. The idea is that if you’re busy, you won’t have time to dwell on the very grating fact that at that exact moment somebody else is plowing the love of your life.
It doesn’t always work.
Erin (who also requested her last name not be used), a 28-year-old counselor, thought she was ready when she and her boyfriend of one year decided to explore polyamory. “We thought we were really radical and that monogamy was totally oppressive, boring and not cool,” she says with a roll of her eyes. “Obviously that was a bunch of crap.” Three years into the experiment, poorly handled encounters led to resentment and anger. Or as Erin bluntly puts it: “He was into it more for the booty than the politics.”
Now in a long-term relationship with a woman, Erin says the only thing polyamory enhances is a couple’s odds of breaking up. “The theory that you can share your partner without some sort of backlash almost always works better than the practice,” she insists. “You can talk about having an open relationship, but the second one of you actually acts on it, the shit hits the fan.”
“Polyamory can be a mess,” admits Avena, the Ashland-based therapist. “It sounds revolutionary, and to have that much love and support in your life is astounding. But there can be a lot of conflict, and if the core relationship isn’t solid enough to handle it? People can get hurt really badly.”
A fact that I couldn’t stop coming back to. Sure, it’s honest if my girlfriend tells me she’d really like to hop in the sack with the guy bagging her groceries. But how many times can I hear that before I start losing confidence in my abilities as her partner, or in her abilities as mine? No matter how much we might try to turn such extracurricular hook-ups into some sort of air-tight, precoital Kyoto Protocol, the fact remains: She’s seeking solace in the arms—and nether regions—of somebody who’s not me. And, from where I’m standing, no amount of homework or night flights to Missouri could distract me from that truth.
Then again, maybe I’m just jealous.